IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA
July 6, 2012
PATRICK COLLINS, INC., A CALIFORNIA CORPORATION, PLAINTIFF,
JOHN DOES 1 THROUGH 38, DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kendall J. Newman United States Magistrate Judge
Presently before the court is plaintiff's ex parte application for leave to conduct expedited discovery ("Application") pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(d)(1).*fn1
Plaintiff seeks leave of court to serve third-party discovery subpoenas on nonparty Internet Service Providers ("ISP") in order to obtain the true identities of 38 "John Doe" defendants ("John Does"), who are alleged to have infringed on, or contributed to the infringement of, plaintiff's copyrighted video entitled Busty Construction Girls. (See Application at 1, Dkt. No. 4; see generally Compl.) Because plaintiff did not request a hearing, and oral argument would not materially aid the resolution of the pending matter, the court resolves plaintiff's Application on the moving papers and record. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 78(b); E. Dist. Local Rule 230(g). In consideration of the Application, and for the reasons stated below, the court grants plaintiff's Application for leave to conduct early discovery in part, and authorizes plaintiff to serve one nonparty subpoena pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 in accordance with the remainder of this order.
Plaintiff filed a complaint against defendants identified as "John Does 1 through 38" asserting claims of copyright infringement and contributory infringement in regards to the copyrighted motion picture entitled Busty Construction Girls ("Video").*fn2 (See Compl. ¶¶ 11, 45-61.) Plaintiff alleges that it owns U.S. Copyright Registration Number PA0001783736, which is the copyright registration associated with the Video.*fn3 (See id. ¶¶ 11-13 & Ex. B.)
Plaintiff alleges that the John Does, acting in concert with each other, used an online peer-to-peer media distribution system, a "BitTorrent" file sharing protocol, to download and distribute the Video.*fn4 (See Compl. ¶¶ 10, 16, 33, 39, 41-42, 47, 54-55.) Plaintiff alleges that it does not know the actual name of any of the John Does at this time.*fn5 (See id. ¶ 7; see also Kushner Decl. ¶ 2, Dkt. No. 4, Doc. No. 4-4.) However, through use of an investigator, plaintiff identified evidence of the John Does' alleged infringing activities. Specifically, plaintiff's investigator identified each John Doe by a unique Internet Protocol ("IP") address that corresponds with that John Doe's alleged infringing activity conducted while participating in the BitTorrent swarm.*fn6 (See Compl. ¶¶ 38-39 & Ex. A; Fieser Decl. ¶¶ 15-21 & Ex. B, Dkt. No. 4, Doc. No. 4-1.) Plaintiff's investigator used a "unique hash number" associated with the particular torrent file at issue as a sort of digital fingerprint to identify the IP addresses associated with the members of the swarm.*fn7 (See Compl. ¶¶ 38-39 & Ex. A; Fieser Decl. ¶¶ 18 & Ex. B.) The investigator also viewed a control copy of the Video along side the digital media file identified by the unique hash number and associated with the subject IP addresses, and "determined that the digital media file contained a movie that was identical, strikingly similar or substantially similar" to the Video. (Fieser Decl. ¶ 21; see also Compl. ¶ 42.)
Shortly after filing the complaint, plaintiff filed the pending Application in order to discover the John Does' actual names and contact information so that plaintiff may name them in an amended complaint and serve them with process. (See Application at 1, 4-5.) Specifically, plaintiff seeks leave of court to serve Rule 45 subpoenas on ISPs associated with the various IP addresses in order to identify each John Doe defendant.*fn8
A status (pretrial scheduling) conference is presently set for October 4, 2012, before United States District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller. (Order Setting Status (Pretrial Scheduling) Conference at 1, Dkt. No. 3.) However, it is highly unlikely that any discovery conference pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(f) can take place among the parties in advance of the scheduling conference given plaintiff's representations that it does not presently know any of the John Does' actual names or contact information.
II. LEGAL STANDARDS
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(d)(1) provides: "A party may not seek discovery from any source before the parties have conferred as required by Rule 26(f), except in a proceeding exempted from initial disclosure under Rule 26(a)(1)(B), or when authorized by these rules, by stipulation, or by court order" (emphasis added). District courts within the Ninth Circuit have permitted expedited discovery prior to the Rule 26(f) conference upon a showing of "good cause." See, e.g., In re Countrywide Fin. Corp. Derivative Litig., 542 F. Supp. 2d 1160, 1179 (C.D. Cal. 2008) (citing Semitool, Inc. v. Tokyo Electron Am., Inc., 208 F.R.D. 273 (N.D. Cal. 2002)); accord Am. LegalNet, Inc. v. Davis, 673 F. Supp. 2d 1063, 1066 (C.D. Cal. 2009). "Good cause exists where the need for expedited discovery, in consideration of the administration of justice, outweighs the prejudice to the responding party." In re Countrywide Fin. Corp. Derivative Litig., 542 F. Supp. 2d at 1179 (citation and quotation marks omitted).
Here, plaintiff seeks permission to conduct early or expedited discovery and serve Rule 45 subpoenas on ISPs that might be able to assist plaintiff in identifying the true identities of the John Does. District courts within the Ninth Circuit have often found good cause supporting early or expedited discovery in cases where the plaintiff alleged copyright infringement accomplished through distribution of the work over a peer-to-peer network, and where the plaintiff only named Doe defendants and sought early discovery to obtain the identities and contact information of the alleged infringers from associated ISPs. See, e.g., Berlin Media Art E.K. v. Does 1 through 146, No. S-11-2039 KJM GGH, 2011 WL 4056167, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 12, 2011) (unpublished) (granting leave to conduct expedited discovery in the form of Rule 45 subpoenas seeking "information sufficient to identify each Doe defendant by name, current and permanent address, telephone number, and e-mail address"); UMG Recordings, Inc. v. Doe, No. C 08-1193 SBA, 2008 WL 4104214, at *4-5 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 3, 2008) (unpublished) (granting leave to conduct expedited discovery in the form of Rule 45 subpoenas seeking "documents that identify Defendant, including the name, current (and permanent) address and telephone number, e-mail address, and Media Access Control addresses for Defendant" John Doe); Arista Records LLC v. Does 1-43, No. 07cv2357-LAB (POR), 2007 WL 4538697, at *1-2 (S.D. Cal. Dec. 20, 2007) (granting leave to conduct expedited discovery in the form of Rule 45 subpoenas seeking documents that would reveal each Doe defendant's "true name, current and permanent addresses and telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Media Access Control addresses."); but see Hard Drive Prods., Inc. v. Does 1-90, No. C 11-03825 HRL, 2012 WL 1094653, at *7 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 30, 2012) (unpublished) (stating that "the court will not assist a plaintiff who seems to have no desire to actually litigate but instead seems to be using the courts to pursue an extra-judicial business plan against possible infringers (and innocent others caught up in the ISP net)").*fn9
For example, in Arista Records LLC, the plaintiffs alleged that unidentified defendants used an online media distribution system to download and distribute plaintiffs' copyrighted works to the public without permission. Arista Records LLC, 2007 WL 4538697, at *1. Because the plaintiffs were only able to identify each defendant by a unique IP address assigned to that defendant, plaintiffs filed an ex parte application seeking leave to immediately serve discovery on a nonparty ISPs to identify the Doe defendants' true identities. Id. The district court found good cause to allow expedited discovery on the basis of the plaintiffs' prima facie showing of infringement, the risk that the ISP would not long preserve the information sought, the narrow tailoring of the requests to the minimum amount of information needed to identify the defendants without prejudicing their rights, and the fact that the expedited discovery would substantially contribute to moving the case forward. Id. The court further noted that, without such discovery, plaintiffs could not identify the Doe defendants and would not be able to pursue their lawsuit to protect their copyrighted works. Id.
Here, the undersigned finds that good cause supports permitting plaintiff to conduct limited early discovery in order to discover the actual identity of, and contact information for, defendant John Doe 1. Plaintiff has persuasively argued that it cannot identify John Doe 1, or any of the John Does, without early discovery and, therefore, cannot name the John Does or serve them with process. Second, plaintiff plainly cannot conduct a Rule 26(f) discovery conference in advance of the scheduling conference without knowing at least one John Doe's real name and contact information. Third, plaintiff's representations presently support that the IP address identified by plaintiff for John Doe 1-22.214.171.124-is associated with a particular individual, and that the discovery sought will facilitate identification of, and service of the summons and complaint on, John Doe 1. Fourth, plaintiff's investigative technician has declared, albeit rather speculatively and without explanation, that some ISPs store subscriber information associated with particular IP addresses for a limited period of time.*fn10 The undersigned also finds, at least on the present record, that there is little risk of material prejudice to John Doe 1 or the associated ISP, Charter Communications, if that ISP is served with a Rule 45 subpoena that requires the ISP to provide the actual name and contact information of John Doe 1. Finally, of course, John Doe 1 and the ISP may move to quash the subpoena or seek a protective order.
In short, good cause supports permitting plaintiff to conduct limited, expedited discovery. The minimal risk of prejudice to John Doe 1 and the associated ISP does not outweigh plaintiff's need for the discovery sought.
However, the undersigned does not grant plaintiff leave to conduct expedited discovery as to John Does 2 through 38. At least two reasons support this conclusion. First, plaintiff's primary aim is to move this case forward, which ultimately means serving a defendant with the summons and complaint and proceeding with normally scheduled discovery. Permitting plaintiff to conduct discovery to identify John Doe 1 will allow plaintiff to name and serve a defendant in this case, conduct a Rule 26(f) conference, and then conduct discovery as to the remaining John Does. In light of plaintiff's allegation that the John Does acted "in concert with each other" (Compl. ¶ 10), discovery propounded on John Doe 1 should facilitate plaintiff's identification of some, if not all, of the remaining defendants.
Second, by limiting expedited discovery to John Doe 1, the court avoids prematurely ruling on the question of improper joinder, which appears endemic to BitTorrent file sharing cases such as this one.*fn11 See, e.g., OpenMind Solutions, Inc. v. Does 1-39, No. C 11-3311 MEJ, 2011 WL 3740714, at *4-5 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 23, 2011) (unpublished) (granting early discovery as to one Doe defendant but dismissing all but one of the 39 Doe defendants from the action without prejudice for improper joinder); Diabolic Video Prods., Inc., 2011 WL 3100404, at *3-5 (granting early discovery as to one Doe defendant but severing all but one of the 2,099 Doe defendants from the action for improper joinder); see also On The Cheap, LLC v. Does 1-5,011, 280 F.R.D. 500-03, (N.D. Cal. 2011) (dismissing 5,010 defendants without prejudice for improper joinder after expedited discovery was permitted and conducted). Here, although plaintiff alleges that all of the defendants acted in concert, it also alleges that the 38 defendants acted on different dates over approximately three weeks, at different times of day, and at locations scattered throughout California. (See Compl. ¶ 10 & Ex. A.) Plaintiff's discovery as to John Doe 1 may very well bolster plaintiff's allegations regarding proper joinder, but at a minimum develop the record.
For the foregoing reasons, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that:
1. Plaintiff's ex parte application to conduct expedited discovery (Dkt. No. 4) is granted in part.
2. Plaintiff may immediately serve a subpoena pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45 on Charter Communications in order to identify the actual name and contact information for John Doe 1, who is associated with IP address 126.96.36.199. Such subpoena shall be limited in scope and may only seek the following information about defendant John Doe 1: name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address.*fn12 A copy of this order shall be attached to any such subpoena.
3. Charter Communications shall in turn serve a copy of the subpoena and a copy of this order on the subscriber, defendant John Doe 1, within 30 days from the date of service of the subpoena on the ISP. The ISP may serve the subscriber using any reasonable means, including written notice sent to the subscriber's last known address, transmitted either by first-class mail or via overnight service.
4. The ISP served with a subpoena pursuant to this order shall confer with plaintiff before assessing any charge in advance of providing the information requested in the subpoena.
5. Nothing in this order precludes the ISP or defendant John Doe 1 from challenging the subpoenas consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and this court's Local Rules. However, any such challenge, such as a motion to quash the subpoena or a motion for a protective order, shall be filed before the return date of the subject subpoena, and the return date shall be no earlier than 60 days from the date of service of the subpoena on the ISP.
6. If the ISP or the subscriber files a motion to quash or a motion for a protective order, the ISP shall preserve the information sought by the subpoena pending resolution of such a motion.
7. Any information disclosed to plaintiff by the ISP may only be used by plaintiff for the purpose of protecting its rights under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 et seq.
IT IS SO ORDERED.